Egypt extends vote for president amid low turnout reports

Egypt gave voters an extra day to vote for a president Tuesday, in a surprise move amid a reportedly low turnout in the first election since the overthrow of the Islamist leader.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the ex-army chief who toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last year, is the clear frontrunner. But his campaign had hoped for a large turnout for a decisive show of support.

After reports of a meagre turnout on the first day of voting on Monday, his backers and sympathetic media harangued voters to go and vote as Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood had called for a boycott.

One television anchor, the ultra-nationalist Tawfiq Okasha, went as far as suggesting that people who do not vote should "be shot".

The decision to extend the voting into Wednesday was made to "give a chance to the largest possible number of voters to cast their ballots," said a member of the electoral commission quoted by state news agency MENA.

The commission added later in a statement that the vote had been extended because of a "heatwave that resulted in a crowding of voters during the evening hours".

A comfortable win for Sisi over his sole rival, the leftist Hamdeen Sabbahi, has never been seriously in doubt.

But the Brotherhood, subjected to a brutal police crackdown in which hundreds of its supporters have been killed, has called for boycott and said it will not recognise the outcome.

So too have key activists behind the 2011 uprising that toppled long-time strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011. They fear Sisi is an autocrat in the making.

The interior ministry said turnout on the first day of the election was about 16 million out of the country's 53 million eligible voters.

But some Cairo polling stations visited by AFP were deserted in the first hours of voting on Tuesday.

"I don't want to be part of those responsible for all those people who died," Tarek Salim told AFP at a Cairo cafe, explaining his decision not to vote.

Another abstainer, Diaa Hussein, complained there was no real choice. "Sisi didn't leave a chance for anyone else to win," he said.

Gamal Abdel Gawad, an analyst at the American University of Cairo, said the extension of voting "affects the credibility of the election process."

"There was no need to raise expectations of a high turnout. When the result of an election is already known, there is very little incentive for voters to come out and vote," he said.

- 'World is watching' -

Sisi issued a personal plea for a large turnout after casting his own ballot on Monday.

"The entire world is watching us, how Egyptians are writing history and their future today and tomorrow," he said, surrounded by cheering supporters.

The rival candidates have portrayed the vote as a choice between stability and the freedoms promised by the pro-democracy uprisings in the region.

The Arab world's most populous nation has been rocked by turmoil since the 2011 uprising which has ravaged the economy and its vital tourism sector.

Sisi's ouster of Morsi on July 3 triggered the worst peacetime bloodshed in recent Egyptian history, but the former army chief has vowed to stamp out the violence.

A big security force deployment prevented any major polling day incidents.

"We need an iron fist to restore the situation," said 63-year-old engineer Kamal Mohamed Aziz, who had come with his wife to vote for Sisi.

But civil servant Karim el-Demerdash said he had voted for Sabbahi to try to preserve the gains of the 2011 uprising.

"I am sure that the election results are already decided but this is the last attempt to bring the revolution into power," he said.

Sisi has said "true democracy" will take a couple of decades, and suggested he will not tolerate protests disrupting the economy.

He has also pledged to eliminate the Brotherhood, which won every election following Mubarak's overthrow after being banned for decades.

"Forgery will never grant legitimacy to a butcher nor will it lessen the determination of revolutionaries," the Brotherhood said as it urged a boycott.

The Brotherhood has been decapitated by a police crackdown that has killed more than 1,400 people and left all of its top leaders in jail or exile.

Morsi himself has been detained and put on trial.

"This election will not wipe the slate clean after 10 months of gross human rights violations," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui of Amnesty International.